The time before you hold your breath, the time leading up to the dive, is the most important part. You breathe with intention, in and out, a steady rhythm. The goal is to achieve absolute physiological calm, and this takes sustained self-awareness. Any resistance to stress and inner conflict must be released. To deal with negativity, you must let it temporarily sink in and conquer you. As you float suspended in these dread emotions, death peeks in quietly from around the corner—for death is the culmination of all these grim emotions. When you acknowledge this, there is nothing more to fear. Accepting the idea of death, of embracing the physical feeling of death, is a natural process. It is freeing, and it will give you true peace.
Then, plunging under the water, the challenge is to maintain this peace for as long as possible. The image of drowning becomes clearer and clearer; fighting it creates panic, brings it rushing in. Self-monitoring becomes crucial—detachedly you watch, judging the distance between your current state and your projected demise.
I’ve stopped being such an optimist. I used to try to pick out the constellations reflected in puddles of piss; now, I turn my head upwards and look at the stars. I have historically been terrified of loss, of not living up to some ideal I’d established for myself, and in the flight from consequences that would disprove me I would thrash and kick desperately, struggling away from a core of anxiety within me, of rot and dread. “Dread” is the best way to describe it—the feeling that would come about only immediately upon waking, before my brain had a chance to jam a lid on the subconscious. It was confusion, angst, and total loss—the emotion of death. This is what I had railed against for so long, and I couldn’t let it into my life. In running I would propel myself, like one pole of a magnet repulsed by the other negative pole, far, far away.
The qualities that we are attracted to in other people, the things that make us want to spend time with them, are things that we want to take into ourselves. One of my best friends now is grim, unpretentious. He’ll laugh when he feels good, but when things are bad he doesn’t really try to hide it. He gets a muzzle like a dog, a scowl. It’s easy to see the dread is there, and I love it. I can tell he’s suffered loss, and he has equalized. Before I had verbalized this train of thought to myself, I was attracted to this quality. A serious man.
I am trying to equalize too, after so many years of running. Becoming accustomed to the darker side of life is a cornerstone of getting older; experience is coping with loss and coming to accept reality. I am coming to terms with this more complete picture of myself—one who can be both bright and grim at the same time; a knower of life and death.
Is life precious? I have posed this question to myself recently and repeated it often. Is the whole world precious? Every tree, every person, every fly? It depends on your perspective. Our life is precious to the solar system: sentient life, some say, is the miracle of all creation, the winning lottery ticket in the elemental chaos of outer space. If we set the boundaries of our perspective to include endless light-years of void, then yes, life is clearly precious. But realistically, we are inundated by life. It is all we know. Residing within our bodies which are life incarnate we look outwards and see nothing but life: the changing of the seasons, rust appearing on metal, babies and highschoolers and funerals. Life is easy to take for granted because it’s all there is. For me, this is a more realistic perspective. Life is precious if you make it precious; life matters if you behold it and find it significant.
In the vast tornado of life we come to be and we are cut down again. This is the way things are. When I begin having this conversation with people, I warn them that it may sound fatalistic. Really, it’s just me coming to grips with the world. Equalizing, like the inner ear: coming to rest within the matrix of forces that runs through our environment. When I let this pressure come inside of me and surrender to it, that’s when I find real quiet. That’s where peace resides—in the morbid calm, sweet in its weight and finality.
This equilibrium is the way that things really are, and from its acceptance springs clear consciousness and real emotional understanding. I can hold my breath longer when I simply let things be, let my heart go to stone within my chest. I’m guessing that I can live better, too, whenever I take the time to feel the weight of my flesh and bones, my blood and emotions, pulling me back down towards the earth, down towards the ground from whence they came.